Skyscraper Bloat

Photo: Courtesy of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

As soon as the economy perks up, Manhattan’s skyline is going to change, and when it does, the Empire State Building will lose its splendid isolation. The City Council recently okayed a 1,216-foot tower at 15 Penn Plaza to creep into competition with the icon of icons. More big, beefy skyscrapers are on the way. To get a sense of how the future skyline will look, check out the Bank of America Tower on Bryant Park, a bulky glass stele that executes a modest twist to lend itself an air of grace. For the new business behemoths, a few indentations or judicious asymmetries set off the taut seamlessness of their skins. The top of 15 Penn will curve slightly inward as if embarrassed by its massiveness. Vertical folds in the curtain wall on each façade and at each corner resemble slits in a satin gown worn by an elephant.

“The family of new buildings that are being proposed are fundamentally different animals … they’re much bigger.”
—Rafael Pelli, 15 penn plaza’s lead architect

Why So Chunky

1. Financial firms require enormous trading floors. “Taller, slenderer buildings make for more handsome proportions,” notes T. J. Gottesdiener, managing partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “The Chrysler and Empire State Buildings are so handsome because they’re so tall and because they have such tiny floor plates.” It’s impossible for new skyscrapers not to suffer by comparison.

2. Large, populous floors in turn mean a few more high-speed elevators, which get packed into a thicker concrete core, fattening up the building.

3. Glass walls are necessary to keep the inner cubicles from feeling sepulchral, and besides, they offset higher cooling costs with thrifty lighting systems.

4. Floors are fourteen and a half feet apart, compared to ten feet in older skyscrapers, to allow for higher ceilings and sixteen-inch under-floor A/C ducts, meaning that 80 stories need a lot more height than they once did.

5. Because of the height of 15 Penn, Herald Square and much of the Penn Station area will be in shadow for an extra hour daily in the spring and summer.

6. The set-back look of Manhattan’s twenties skyscrapers was a function of the city’s 1916 zoning law. Aesthetically, the new ones look a bit more like the recent towers that have gone up in Asia.

Photo: (Left to right) Courtesy of Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP. and Dbox Studio; Courtesy of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects; Courtesy of RSHP, Team Macarie, SPI; Courtesy of FXFOWLE; Courtesy of Hines, New York; Courtesy of Extell Development Co.; Courtesy of Maki and Associates, SPI


1,776 ft.
1 World Trade Center

1,216 ft.
15 Penn Plaza

1,137 ft.
3 World Trade Center

1,060 ft.
3 Hudson Boulevard

1,050 ft.

1,000 ft.
Carnegie 57

975 ft.
4 World Trade Center

Skyscraper Bloat